January 31, 2008

An Unexpected Lifer

Tuesday morning, after spending that hour down along the shore of the Well, I was hanging out in the parking lot chatting with one of our volunteers. While I was standing there I noticed some Western Bluebirds and a juvenile Northern Mockingbird hanging out in a large juniper nearby.

So, since I still had my camera in hand, I decided to take both more me-time and more photographs. I happily clicked away, easily taking another fifty pictures of these very cooperative subjects. Nothing particularly exciting about the whole experience...just a chance to take pictures of some fairly common birds. Birds I have seen hundreds of times before. Or so I thought.

That evening I told Sonja about my morning in the parking lot and proceeded to pour through the 264 images, culling them down to the 21 best, including this one of the mockingbird.

I hadn't even considered the option that this bird wasn't a Northern Mockingbird. I see them in that tree all the time. It looks like a mockingbird...it's in the same place as other mockingbirds...it's a mockingbird. Then I happened to mention to Sonja that some birders had seen a Sage Thrasher only a few days prior in the same spot. She thought that was pretty cool, since neither of us had ever seen one before, and thought we should try to go find it sometime.

Before bed that evening, while sitting on the crapper, no less, I was flipping through one of our bird books when I suddenly spotted a picture of the mockingbird I had taken a picture of that morning. However, next to it was the label "Sage Thrasher". I flipped back to the mockingbird section, then back to the thrashers. They looked pretty similar, particularly the juvenile mockingbird, but there were some definite differences.

After re-examining the photo there was no question about it. What I had assumed was simply a young Northern Mockingbird turns out to be a brand new lifer for me. It was a reminder to me never to take a bird for granted. Even if it's one you've seen a million times before, one you've seen so many times you don't even have to think about it before IDing it.

Anyway, here's a photo of one of the bluebirds I saw, too.

January 30, 2008

Yesterday Morning

I took some me-time yesterday morning and spent an hour on the shore of Montezuma Well with my camera. This is what I saw.

Look closely...

January 26, 2008

Wondrous Variety

Most people, I'm sure, would classify a species as a group of animals that generally share the same characteristics (ie, color, size, shape). While the exact definition relates more towards reproductive viability, in most cases an individual member of a single species tends to look pretty much the same as all the other members. As far as birds go that's fairly typical, with a few notable exceptions. And in North America, no other bird, at least that I am aware of, displays as much variation in plumage than the Dark-eyed Junco.

While there are seven recognized "forms" of the Dark-eyed Junco in North America, most people are generally familiar with only the one or two that visit their winter feeders. In Fairbanks, for instance, we only saw "slate-colored" forms. Now that we are in Arizona, however, things have gotten much more interesting. Today I identified four distinct forms of Dark-eyed Juncos in our yard. I got photos of three of them today and am using an older picture I took of the fourth for comparison.

Here is the "Oregon" form. Due to how dark this bird's head is we can even identify it as a male. These forms tend to have the greatest contrast in their plumage, with very dark heads and much lighter bellies and backs.

I've identified this one as a "pink-sided" junco. Now, out of all four of my identifications, this is the one I'm least confident about. Not to say I don't still think it's a pink-sided, just that there is a twinge of uncertainty remaining. Now, I chose pink-sided primarily due to how extensive the buffy coloring is on the breast. In oregon forms, you should be able to see some white near the top of the breast. That said, it's head is still a bit on the dark side, so there is a chance it could be a first year female oregon. But for the purposes of this blog post, it's a pink-sided. So there.

The grey-headed form is almost as common around here as the Oregon, but for some reason we haven't been seeing as many lately. There were only two that I spotted this afternoon. I took the photo of this grey-headed junco near Flagstaff last October, actually. Take special note of the color of the bill on this bird, then continue to the next picture.

Now, when I first saw this bird today my first reaction was grey-headed. Then I took a closer look at the bill. Can you see how the upper half is much darker than the lower half? That makes this bird a "red-backed" junco. For most non-birders, this distinction doesn't really mean that much, and it might still be kind of hard to see. So here are the two birds side-by-side:

Really, the only difference between these two forms is the darker upper bill on the red-backed. And when you see them next to each other like this, it's pretty obvious.

So, there you have it. Four different junco forms in one yard in a single afternoon. Now, to me this is all incredibly interesting. But I suppose that's the reason our license plate says "BRDNERD". So, for those of you who don't find the many forms of juncos fascinating enough to dedicate an entire blog post to them, here's a special treat just for you.

You're very own Abert's Towhee! For how big this bird is (nearly robin-sized) they're rather spineless. The juncos spent the better part of the afternoon pushing this one around, bullying it off of the platform feeder.

Anyway, now you know more about juncos.

January 24, 2008

935 Lies

**WARNING** Political Rant Ahead **WARNING**

Here are some highlights from this recent CNN article which details just how many times the Bush Administration lied to us about Iraq in the two years prior to the U.S. invasion:
  • Bush lied 232 times about Iraq and Saddam Hussein's possessing weapons of mass destruction (these supposed weapons never existed);
  • Bush lied 28 times about supposed links between Iraq and Al Qaeda (there were no links);
  • Colin Powell lied 244 times about WMDs and 10 times about Iraq and Al Qaeda;
  • Donald Rumsfeld and Ari Fleischer each lied 109 times;
  • Condeleeza Rice lied 56 times;
  • and Dick Cheney got away with a scant 48 falsehoods.
So, Bush lies 260 times and he gets a war that kills over a hundred thousand innocent Iraqis. Clinton lies once about screwing an intern and he gets impeached. Where's the justice in that?!?

But you know who is really to blame for this unholy war that has cost us almost half a trillion dollars? All the so-called journalists whose job it is to question, investigate and report the TRUTH! Of course, the fact that so many Americans bought these lies hook, line and sinker didn't help much, either. But the media is to blame for that, too. Sure, we should be able to trust the President to be open and honest with us regarding such monumental decisions like whether or not to invade another country. It's unfortunate that the vast majority of Americans forgot that the measure of a true patriot is not how many flags and ribbons you can adorn your cars with, but your willingness to question the decisions your government makes and demand accountability and honesty of our elected officials.

Thankfully, we've all learned our lesson. We'll never let the President and his lapdog "journalists" (ie, Fox News) lead us into another war, right? RIGHT???

We can't be stupid enough to fall for the same shit all over again . . . or can we?

January 21, 2008

The Stars at Night...

...are big and bright!

Ok, so you'll only get that reference if 1) you're from Texas, or 2) you're a fan of PeeWee Herman. But anyway, I was playing around with the camera last night during the nearly full moon. While my lunar pictures didn't turn out that well, I thought this one of Ursa Major perched above Montezuma Well was pretty cool. Now that I know how to eliminate most of the camera shake for long-exposure pictures I'm going to have to try to get some good Milky Way shots during the next new moon in a couple weeks.

January 17, 2008

iPod meme

I figure since I still can't seem to kick this whole blogger's block thing, I'll just keep forcing myself to participate in random memes that I find on some of my favorite blogs. I stole this idea from Patrick, who in turn had stolen it from a blogger friend of his named Laura. Anyway, you're supposed to take your iPod (or MP3 player, or the folder containing all of your ripped music on your computer), set it to random and write down the first 20 songs that pop up. Here's my list...

1. Strange Fire -- The Indigo Girls
2. Somewhere Over the Rainbow -- Israel Kamakawiwo'ole
3. Stewball Was a Racehorse -- Peter, Paul and Mary
4. Once in a Blue Moon -- Nancy Griffith
5. Red Dirt Girl -- Emmy Lou Harris
6. Not Ready to Make Nice -- The Dixie Chicks
7. Edmund Fitzgerald -- Gordon Lightfoot
8. Is There Anybody Here? -- Phil Ochs (here's a great cover of this fantastic song)
9. The Anvil of Crom -- Conan the Barbarian Soundtrack
10. Falling Slowly -- "Once" soundtrack (Beautiful song from an incredible, and simple, movie)
11. The Long Way Around -- The Dixie Chicks
12. Don't Panic -- Cold Play, from the "Garden State" Soundtrack
13. Telluride -- Kate Wolf
14. Zombie -- Cranberries
15. Love and Some Verses -- Iron & Wine
16. Hands -- Jewel
17. Poems, Prayers and Promises -- John Denver
18. Roxanne -- The Police
19. Fishing in Heaven -- John Prine
20. Either Way -- Guster

Not too surprising what popped up. Mostly singer-songwriter folksie stuff. Although I would have expected at least one cheesy 80's power ballad or love song in there. Funny how the track from the Conan movie sort of sticks out in the mix, huh? As bizarre as this might sound, the music from that classic Arnie movie is fantastic. James Horner, the guy who wrote the music to "Glory", composed it.

I think this list simply confirms that I am, and always shall be, a SNAG.

January 14, 2008

Meep! Meep!

There is probably one bird that, due to pop culture and curiously bizarre appearances and behaviors, more than any other has become synonymous with the desert southwest. The Greater Roadrunner. Well, it took an entire year, but I finally got some decent photos of one. It's not that I haven't seen them numerous times in the past year, as they are quite common in the area (I'm guessing we probably have two or three that live here at the Well). It's just that they can be surprisingly hard to find when you want to see one. And every time I did spot one, whether it was on the road (of course) or running across the walls of the Tuzigoot pueblo, I never had a camera with me.

Well, that all changed yesterday when Sonja went outside to take the trash to the dumpster. Several minutes later she comes dashing back into the house to tell me to grab the camera and go check out the roadrunner in the yard next door. It took me a minute to switch lenses and get my shoes on, so I wasn't very hopeful that it would still be there, but as you can see in the photos below, I got lucky.

There's just something about this bird that makes everyone smile when they see one. I don't know, maybe it's the novelty of seeing a cartoon character come to life. But you never see that reaction when someone spots a coyote or a frog.

I really like this photo, since it sort of captures the personality of the bird. It seemed fairly unconcerned that I was standing so close, and spent most of its time peering down into the grass looking for food. I guess Sonja saw it eating some little bugs and stuff, but it didn't find anything while I was looking.

Whenever it stopped it would raise and lower its tail and crest together. I'm not sure if this is an unconscious display or if it was for my benefit as some sort of dominance/territorial thing, but it was pretty cool to watch. I've never seen any other species of cuckoo, whose family they belong to, so I don't know if it's something you find in other members of the family, either.

This one gives us a good look at its powerful legs. While it is perfectly capable of flying, I've rarely seen them doing anything but running along the ground. The length of their legs helps them not only run quickly, but also hunt and kill some of their more dangerous prey species, like rattlesnakes.

And here is the typical view most people have when they see a roadrunner: the bird running quickly away. Now, if I could only get one of our Common Blackhawks to cooperate so well.

January 12, 2008

Rings, Raptors and Radio

So, I apparently am still suffering from a bad case of "I don't want to blog today" -itis. Not sure why, either. Oh well...I suppose if I just make myself sit down and try to blog something every couple days inspiration may strike. TJ over at From the Faraway, Nearby even tagged me for a meme and it has still taken me over a week to respond. But perhaps this will be my Calliope. We'll see...

Anyway, the theme of this meme (ha, bet you didn't know it. . . I'm already a poet) is "seven random facts". I'm sure some of this won't really be new to many of you, but I'll try to spice it up with some juicy tidbits from my past that may shed some more light on who I am.

1) I'm a SNAG, and rather proud of it.
For those of you not familiar with this acronym, it stands for Sensitive New Age Guy and is the general term used to describe those of us who generally don't fall into the category of being a "manly man". You know, guys who really aren't that into sports (unless it means being able to embarass your brothers by being able to pick a surprisingly good fantasy football team), and often prefer chick-flicks over more traditionaly masculine fare (last month, while waiting for Sonja to get off work, I went to see a movie. I could have chosen either Beowulf or Enchanted. I picked Enchanted...and loved it). We are also notoriously bad at being handy around the house, or with the car for that matter. Of course, this isn't to say I can't be incredibly manly when I want to, I simply choose not to want to most of the time.

2) I was a college radio DJ for four years.
I actually had one of the more popular shows on KSUA up in Fairbanks, the Vegetarian Treehuggers. I specialized in playing americana, folk and bluegrass, and even had several well-known singer songwriters come in and play during my show when they were in town for a concert. These usually involved some of the local Fairbanks talent, but I did get a chance to have both Karen Savoca (three times, actually) and Greg Brown as guests on my show. And I was this close to getting Nancy Griffith to join me in the studio, too. I really miss DJing...

3) I lived on top of a mountain in New Mexico for three months.
I was working for Hawkwatch as their field educator during the 1997 fall raptor migration. That meant I got to hang out and wait for visitors to show up at the observation site, then run down to one of the trapping blinds to grab a recently banded hawk/falcon to give a little program with then release. Here's a clip of one such moment that I recently transferred over to digital from VHS.

On this particular afternoon I think we only had one or two visitors, both of which had spent the better part of the day with us, so I didn't really have much more to say. Most of those you hear talking were part of the field crew that were taking advantage of the photo opportunity. It was just cool to compare the size and shape of a tiny American Kestral with a much larger Red-tailed Hawk.

The whole season was a blast. Cool people and amazing birds, like this Golden Eagle. And the best part of the whole thing was watching the birds fly away after the release.

Everyone should get a chance to live on a mountain top at least once in their life.

4) I've seen "Star Wars: A New Hope" 247 times.
I know it's rather sad that I know that to such a precise degree, but there you go. Back in 1982 when we first got both cable TV and our first VCR I loved to tape movies off of Showtime and watch them over and over again. This was one of the first ones I did that with, and for some reason known only to "1982 Paul" I marked down on a piece of paper whenever I would watch it. The really funny thing is that on Showtime, the movies are always presented in "full screen" format, so they are edited to fit the standard TV screen. It wasn't until I finally watched the "widescreen" version of this film many years later that I realized how much I was missing by only ever watching full-screen versions of movies.

For instance, in the scene where Luke and C3-PO find R2D2 out in the desert, Luke climbs up to a ridge to try to see if there are Sand People in the area. He looks through his cool electrobinoculars (that's actually what they're called) and says, "There are two banthas down there but I don't see any...wait a second, they're Sand People all right, I can see one of them now." In the edited full-screen version, there is no Sand People Person(?) in that scene. I would pause the movie nearly every time I watched it to try to find this mysteriously invisible Tusken Raider, to no avail. I never found him. Until...I was in college watching the movie again with some friends, only this time it was the letterbox, widescreen version. When this scene comes up and Luke peers down at those two lonely banthas, who do I see but that damn Sand People guy strolling around on the far right side of the screen! I was so excited I jumped out of my chair, pointed at the screen and shouted "THERE HE IS!!" I was so happy...and instantly became a widescreen version snob. Although, my friends never wanted to watch Star Wars with me again for some reason. Here's the infamous scene, NOT edited to fit your screen:

And there he is...

5) I'm a helicopter pilot.
Well, an ex-helicopter pilot, at least. I spent three years in flight school during my army stint. Even though I'll probably never get to fly one again, if I concentrate I can still remember how to do it. I goofed around a lot while flying, too. During one of my solo cross-country lessons I planned a trip from Grand Forks to my hometown of Alexandria. When I got there I didn't go straight to the airport like I was supposed to. I mean, come on. I had my very own helicopter to play with, like I was going to not take advantage of that.

So, I stopped by to visit a friend at the camp north of Alex that he was working at. I think I neglected to tell him that I was coming, though, based on the reactions of his coworkers when I landed in the middle of their playing field. Fortunately, they were between sessions, so the only people around were staff. I also hovered over my backyard (which was too small to make a safe landing on). What I didn't realize was that I chose to do this during my old neighborhood's annual garage sale weekend. As a result, my audience was a tad larger than I had anticipated. And all I wanted to do was show Mom my helicopter. I had told her to expect me, so she was able to stop our neighbor from calling the cops, at least.

6) I own a pair of lederhosen.
I even bought them in Austria, so they're the genuine article. They were my one splurge during my three-week backpacking trip in central Europe. When I landed in Frankfurt I started noticing a fair number of "hip" backpackers wearing them, and they looked quite comfortable. So, when I got to Hallstatt and saw them for sale I couldn't resist. In hindsight, I should have gotten a pair of alpenshorts. They would have been more funner.

7) I've lost two wedding rings.
But they were in very cool places. The first time I lost my ring was during our honeymoon in Hawaii.

We had gone scuba diving in some coral reefs near Kona on the Big Island, and I guess my finger shrunk from being so wet. But when I peeled my wetsuit off my arm it sucked the ring from my finger and over the edge of the boat it went. So, Sonja bought me another one as a surprise for Valentine's Day that year. It was a little big for me, but I wanted to wear it anyway.

A few weeks later we went skiing in the Alaska Range south of Fairbanks on Castner Glacier. The weather was beautiful, and actually not that cold so I took lots of pictures. Every time I would get the camera out I'd take off my gloves, snap a photo, then put my gloves back on. It wasn't until we were all out enjoying some pizza in Delta Junction that evening that one of our friends looked across the table, pointed at my hands and said, "Uhh, Paul? Are you missing something?" Things went downhill from there. The closest we were able to figure is that it slipped off my finger at some point during our time on the glacier while I was taking pictures. So I lost my first one in a Hawaiian coral reef and my second in an Alaskan glacier. At least I didn't accidentally flush it down the toilet... Anyway, I wasn't allowed to wear a ring for the next year and a half.

There they are, seven random facts about me. I'm supposed to tag some more people now, so I think I'll go with Steve, Chris, Karen, and Erik.

January 01, 2008

Top Nature Moments of 2007

Well, it's that time of year, again. The day western civilization arbitrarily chose to mark the passing of another trip around our little star. New Years Day doesn't really mean that much to me anymore. Well, aside from it being my mom's birthday, of course. I used to get all revved up and excited about watching the obscenely wasteful tradition of spending millions of dollars and thousands of tons of carbon to light up a big ball on top of a building in the most obnoxiously well-lit city on earth. But it really doesn't do much for me anymore. Neither does going to parties and ringing in the New Year with tons of people. Personally, I was much more excited to just just stay home and watch a movie with Sonja than anything else this year.

I am finally getting around to responding to Patrick's meme tag, though. So, here they are. The top nature moments for 2007 (in chronological order):

10. Wood Bison on the Alaska Highway, Yukon Territory (or was it British Columbia?), January 01, 2007:

Exactly one year ago today, Sonja and I were driving down the very lonely Alaska Highway on our way to Arizona. Along the way, we encountered a herd of wood bison hanging out along the road. We slowed down to give Harvey a chance to say hi.

9. Javelina in our backyard, January 21, 2007:

Your first encounter with a new species is always the most exciting. This was our first experience watching javelina out our bedroom window. They have since become rather regular guests in our neighborhood, which we don't really mind unless one of the stinky males decides to flavor our yard with his pungent oder.

8. Hiking in Sedona, March, 2007: Our first real hike among the red rocks of Sedona is still one of my favorites.

7. Catching my first rattlesnake, April 1, 2007: I was actually pretty paranoid about encountering a rattlesnake when we first moved here. However, after getting a chance to capture several rattlesnakes at the park this year, my paranoia has turned into cautious excitement at the prospect of encountering one while hiking (something we still haven't experienced, yet).

6. The Painted Redstart, Oak Creek Canyon, April 18, 2007: Obviously, I'm going to be picking some birding moments for my list. And my first encounter with a Painted Redstart certainly deserves a mention.

5. Black Widow Spider, May 16, 2007: Out of all the assorted creepy crawly things we've found in and around our little house in the desert, none of them can come close to the cool-factor exhibited by one of our prettiest eight-legged neighbors this year, the Black Widow.

4. The Arizona Heat, all summer long, 2007: The climate here in Arizona deserves a mention, too. I lost track of the number of 100+ days we experienced. At first it was pretty awful, but then you just sort of figure out how to avoid the worst of it. It was pretty frustrating to look outside at a beautifully sunny day and know that there was no way to really enjoy it, though.

3. Hummingbird Swarms, all summer long, 2007:

One of my favorite experiences this year without a doubt was the incredibly number of hummingbirds visiting our feeders. A the height of the season we had five feeders up, and had to refill all of them every day and a half. We would go through about seven gallons of sugar-water every week.

2. Condors in the Canyon, August 17, 2007: Every opportunity to encounter an endangered species is pretty special. Getting to see a critically endangered species with a nine and a half foot wingspan is just freakin' awesome.

I had a really hard time choosing the last of my top ten nature moments. I could have gone with the tarantula I finally saw in our backyard, or the Northern Jacana we saw during a 340+ mile twitch. But when it comes down to it, I had to go with all of the experiences I had out in nature as a result of getting our brand new camera. So, to end the list, here's one of my favorite posts featuring some of what I believe are the best photographs I've ever taken.

1. Becoming a better nature photographer, September - December, 2007.

So, there you have it. My top nature moments of 2007. Happy New Year, everyone. And thanks for reading my blog!